Ash Barker
Slum Life Rising: How to Enflesh Hope within a New Urban World
UNOH Publications, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0987099433


"Slum Life Rising will be essential reading for missionaries and mission leaders. There are no easy answers here to complex dilemmas."


In Slum Life Rising, Ash Barker explores the demographic, development, theological, personal and teamwork challenges of responding to the appalling poverty in urban slum and squatter settlements. 

Combining global perspectives with case studies from Klong Toey in Bangkok, and not avoiding the complexities of power, financial and health dilemmas, he presents an imagination-grabbing approach to incarnational mission of ‘enfleshing hope’  in situations of despair that I find it hard to comprehend. With more than one billion people ‘living in shit’ (to borrow from Mike Davis’ description), and likely two billion by 2030 and three billion by 2050, the writer has convinced this reviewer that this will be one of the most missiologically significant issues in the 21st century. 

Barker explored a Christian response to slums as a PhD thesis with Whitley College, MCD University of Divinity. This book is a result of that research and Barker’s 20 years of urban mission in Melbourne and Bangkok. It follows Richard Osmer‘s practical theology framework of asking ‘what is going on?’ (the descriptive task), ‘why is this going on?’ (the interpretive task), ‘what ought to be going on?’ (the normative task), and ‘how might we respond?' (the pragmatic task). 

It is a complex task, firstly, to describe the nature of slums and explore how Christians are responding to this huge and expanding humanitarian crisis (or not). In three chapters of Part A, Barker offers an insightful snapshot of slums and squatter neighbourhoods: chapter one introduces them with a Klong Toey case study, chapter two offers a global perspective and chapter three investigates Christian responses. Barker uses the terms ‘slums’ to refer to living conditions, ‘squatter’ to refer to legal concerns, and ‘neighbourhoods’ to refer to their shared space and connections. He describes them as a ‘perfect storm’ of poverty because of their seemingly overwhelming complex and enmeshed poverty: "The various ‘fronts’ of poverty kept thundering together, causing misery to multitudes: evictions, fires, floods, urbanisation, vulnerable employment conditions, dangerous housing conditions, sewerage inadequacies, superstitions, corrupt officials, language barriers, sanitation problems, AIDS and other preventable infectious diseases, premature deaths of children, the disabled and the elderly, and often no meaningful connection with Christians".

Part B offers how Barker interprets why ministry in that context is so challenging and why there are so few Christians and Christian workers. Chapter four takes the reader back to Klong Toey and explains the hazardous conditions that impede health, transformation, church growth and poverty alleviation. Even where scant resources are indeed allocated, long-term participatory development practices are not always followed. Aid and development in slums is not as easy to manage or promote as in more stable rural areas. Moreover, there is a range of incarnational approaches to mission, but many of them have serious limitations in slums, for example, how to live simply, look after missionary children, and decide who to help (and thus often to let live). Chapter five grapples with the theological rejection of incarnational methodology by some scholars. Chapter six discusses what incarnation can mean including relocation, crossing cultures and simple lifestyle. Chapter seven evaluates whether incarnational mission can be just one core value (among many) in urban mission. 

The valuable theological contribution of the book is Part C’s proposal for a distinctively Trinitarian motif of ‘enfleshing hope’. This is part of the normative task in Osmer’s schema of practical theology. Barker suggests Christians responding theologically to slums need an awareness of joining the Creator in enfleshing hope (chapter eight); following Jesus the redeemer in engaging suffering and fostering transformation (chapter nine); and participating with the Spirit’s transformative influence (chapter 10). It is a helpful reminder that God in God’s fullness is not absent even in slums and wants to incarnate hope there.

At a pragmatic team level in Part C, Barker unpacks how Christians can be used by God to foster the Kingdom of God in slum and squatter neighbourhoods with dozens of practical suggestions. Chapter 11 explores pioneering team building and strategy including orienting new workers, clarifying expectations, raising support and deciding when to relocate. Chapter 12 stresses the importance of local place-sharing – practising humility in contextualisation, joining existing community groups and local leadership development. Chapter 13 explains workable strategies for poverty alleviation in a range of ministries – relief, capacity building, evangelism, teaching, social capital development and advocacy. The book shows the experience of sensitive and discerning leadership: "Slums can be tightly networked, delicately balanced ecosystems. Those Christian workers who can help sustain the living tissue while nudging it toward Kingdom transformation can be an invaluable resource to its very fabric".

Slum Life Rising will be essential reading for missionaries and mission leaders. There are no easy answers here to complex dilemmas. I would have liked to have read more primary data, from qualitative research or otherwise, of what is actually happening and evaluation of what Barker is proposing, and more about ‘enfleshing hope’ is good news in slums. It is an important area and more thorough research is critical. But Barker offers a clear treatment of the state of slums, and points to original theological and practical resources for responding with authentic goods news. Apart from its strategic relevance, it is also a helpful model of practical theological reflection for teachers and students. I will be steering church leaders and mission students to read and digest it, and ask of one another, ‘what are we going to do about it?’ The book consists of academic research, but also offers study questions, pictures and stories that enhance suitability for personal and group reflection. Jesus stood in the gap for those on the margins who needed healing and respect, and I love that about Jesus. Ash Barker is standing in the gap to advocate for and humanise a largely ignored group of people and neighbourhoods, and I love that about him and his recent and most significant book.   

This review was originally published in Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies, 30:1 (January 2013), 77-78. 

To buy a Kindle edition, follow this link, Slum Life Rising: How to Enflesh Hope within a New Urban World.